When Stress Hurts

Our stress response is highly adaptive and functional: it helps us stay alert and focused during times of emergency and increases our strength and stamina, all in preparation for the fight or flight response. The nervous system responds to a sense of threat by releasing the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which help enact a chain reaction: blood pressure rises, breathing quickens, and muscles tense. These physical responses prepare the body to defend itself or to quickly flee danger.  Body systems not needed for survival of an emergency become a lower priority: Digestion, immune response, and tissue repair all begin to slow down.


While the body’s stress response acts expertly to protect the body from danger, it has a more difficult time discerning whether that danger is real or imagined. You may experience all of the physical symptoms of fight or flight response during a confrontation with a coworker or if you are rushing to meet a deadline. If we don’t allow our body to return to homeostasis, the calm and balanced state we thrive in, these daily stressors can accumulate and manifest as disease, pain and chronic stress conditions.

Common Physical Symptoms of Chronic Stress:

•  Constipation and/or diarrhea (lowered digestive response)

•  Insomnia, or waking up feeling unrested

•  Rapid heartbeat

•  Lowered sex drive

•  Muscular pain and/or headaches

•  Changes in weight

•  Depression


Stress & Pain


Chronic stress that leads to chronic muscle tension may play a role in the development of myofascial trigger points- or the muscle “knots” that often cause us a lot of agony. A trigger point is a palpable nodule within a taut band of muscle that is sensitive to touch and pressure. It may respond to pressure with localized pain or refer pain to another area of the body.

Tension headaches and temporomandibular joint (TMJ) pain are two common conditions that can be caused by stress and trigger points. Research has indicated that trigger point manual therapy, acupuncture and chiropractic treatment can release tension within trigger points, resulting in lowered frequency and severity of tension headaches and muscle tension surrounding the TMJ, alleviating jaw/facial pain.

Managing Your Stress Levels

There are several daily activities you can integrate into your lifestyle to help keep stress in check and prevent it from becoming a literal pain in your neck.

  • BE PRESENT. Spend at least 20 minutes a day unplugged from the phone, computer and TV, and allow time to mentally process your daily stresses, instead of avoiding them.
  • EAT HEALTHY. Maintain a balanced healthy diet by incorporating as many whole foods into your meals while limiting sugars and processed foods. A healthy body is better equipped to handle stress, and helps bolster a suppressed immune system.
  • PRIORITIZE SLEEP. Make an effort to get between 7-8 hours of sleep per night, and stick to a sleep routine. Try not to alter your sleep routine by more than two hours on the weekends.

Massage, Acupuncture, and Chiropractic for Stress & Pain

Manual therapies have long been known to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is considered the antidote to the “fight or flight” response. This “rest and digest” mode is a major stress reducer. It helps boost immune response, stimulates peristalsis (increasing the digestive and excretory process) and slows the heart rate.

In addition, these therapies can directly target myofascial trigger points, resulting in a decrease of muscular and joint pain. Simply making time for yourself to receive a massage, acupuncture, or chiropractic treatment can be the first step in committing to a lower stress lifestyle. Contact Equilibrium today to get started!

Arendt-Nielson, L. 2015. Headache: Muscle Tension, Trigger Points and Referred Pain. International Journal of Clinical Practic.69(8-12).


Levator Scapulae: The ‘Computing’ Muscle

Before you read any further, try this exercise: Take a deep inhale and slowly exhale.

As you exhale, release your shoulders and allow them to drop down into a fully rested position. Did you notice a full inch or more of movement? These are your levator scapulae muscles, and they are rarely relaxed. They are responsible for elevating the shoulders, rotating the head, and keeping the head from falling forward.


Between typing, driving, looking down to text, and holding the phone between the ear and shoulder; the levators are constantly working. Not only are they overworked, they are often the culprit of neck pain, shoulder pain, and the dreaded ‘stiff neck’.  Overuse of these muscles can lead to chronic tension and painful trigger points. Read on for some common bad habits that lead to levator scapulae pain and how to correct them!

Problem: Typing at a desk with a keyboard positioned higher than the elbows, forcing the levators to raise the arms to reach the work surface

Solution: Keyboard and work surface should be level with the elbows in their relaxed state, with the arms at a 90 degree angle, allowing the levators to relax. Consider using a chair with arm supports or keyboard tray to get the perfect angle.

Problem: Holding a phone to the ear, or pinning a phone between the ear and shoulder for extended periods of time

Solution: If talking on the phone is part of your job, consider an ear piece or head set, which will prevent excessive one-sided use of the levator.

Problem: Stress-induced “turtle head” and all around poor posture

Solution: Bring awareness to your posture several times a day by checking in with your head and shoulder position relative to the rest of your body. Roll shoulders back and down into a natural, resting position. Allow the head to float up and back to sit on top of the body, avoiding the “forward head” posture that excessively lengthens and strains the levators.


If you are dealing with neck and shoulder pain, chiropractic and massage therapy can not only alleviate symptoms, but help address and correct any dysfunction within the structures. Treatments include cervical (neck) adjustments and manual therapy not only on the levators, but the trapezius, splenii muscles, sternocleidomastoid and scalenes, all important muscles that work together to ensure proper function of our head, neck and shoulders. Make an appointment with one of our providers to get an examination and treatment plan underway!